Emma Goldman dedicated her life to the creation of a radically new social order and, at the end of her life, chose Forest Park as her final resting place, in tribute to her heroes: the martyrs of the Haymarket Riots.
Goldman was an outspoken woman, convinced that the political and economic organization of modern society was fundamentally unjust, embracing anarchism for the vision it offered of liberty, harmony and true social justice.
For decades, she struggled tirelessly against widespread inequality, repression and exploitation.
A fiery orator and a gifted writer, she became a passionate advocate of freedom of expression, sexual freedom and birth control, equality and independence for women, radical education, union organization and workers’ rights.
Support for these ideas – many of which were unpopular with mainstream America – earned Goldman the enmity of powerful political and economic authorities.
Known as “exceedingly dangerous” and one of the two most dangerous anarchists in America, she was often harassed or arrested while lecturing, and sometimes banned outright from speaking.
Insisting on the right to express herself in the face of overwhelming odds, Goldman became a prominent figure in the establishment of the right to freedom of speech in America.
The Early Years
Born on June 27, 1869, in Kovno, Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire), Emma Goldman became acquainted with poverty, injustice and oppression at a young age.
She witnessed violence against women and children, landlords brutalizing peasants and corrupt officials extorting fees from a powerless constituency.
Her family experienced significant anti-Semitism, living in Jewish ghettoes and forced to move often in search of opportunity.
Goldman’s family provided her with little refuge from the outside world. Although her mother, Taube, was active in the Jewish community, she was frequently depressed and emotionally distant. Her father, Abraham, vented his anger at the difficulties of life by tyrannizing his family.
As a child, Goldman spent four years at a Jewish elementary school in her grandmother’s hometown of Königsberg, doing well academically but rebelling against the capricious authority of the teachers.
At thirteen, she moved with her family to St. Petersburg, where she had six more months of schooling and came into contact with radical students and revolutionary ideas.
An avid reader, Goldman devoured works by the Russian populists and nihilists, who sparked her imagination and reinforced her faith that injustice must be confronted. Her father attempted to crush her yearnings for freedom and opportunity refusing to let her continue her studies. Instead, he sent her to work in a factory and tried to force her into marriage at the age of fifteen.
Dreaming of a new world of equality, justice and freedom, Goldman and her sister Helena fled Russia for the United States in 1885.
As they sailed into the New York harbor, Goldman rejoiced in her arrival in “the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands.”
“We, too,” she thought, “would find a place in the generous heart of America.”
Goldman’s hopes were quickly shattered by the dismal realities of working-class life.
Settling with relatives in Rochester, NY, she found work in a factory.
Although conditions were better than in Russia, the pace of work was faster, the discipline was harsher and Goldman was paid only $2.50 for a 10 ½-hour day.
Family and communal life, moreover, could be as restrictive as those she had left behind.
A series of shocking events soon sparked Goldman’s political awakening.
On May 4, 1886, labor and radical activists held a rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to protest the brutal suppression of a strike by the police. As the police attempted to stop the meeting, a bomb exploded, injuring many people and killing a police officer.
In the ensuing chaos, a number of demonstrators were killed and six officers fatally injured, mostly by police gunfire.
Police and press accused several prominent Chicago anarchists of throwing the bomb. Despite flimsy evidence, eight were convicted of murder, with seven sentenced to death.
Four were executed on November 11, 1887 and two had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. One committed suicide.
Broad international protests followed the verdict.
Goldman, too, was outraged at what she believed to be a travesty of justice. Convinced of the men’s innocence, she began to read everything she could about anarchism.
A dedicated Anarchist
Sympathetic to revolutionary ideas since her days in St. Petersburg, Goldman was soon captivated by anarchism. In August 1889, she broke definitively with her husband, Jacob Kershner, leaving Rochester for New York City.
She plunged immediately into a life of political meetings, labor demonstrations and intellectual discussions.
Goldman defined anarchism as “the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence and are therefore wrong and harmful as well as unnecessary.”
The corresponding anarchist-communist belief that private property was inherently repressive and exploitative also resonated with her experiences and ideals.
Desiring a state of absolute freedom and believing it would never come about through gradual reform, Goldman and her comrades advocated complete destruction of the State.
Yet anarchists did not champion chaos or disorder. Trusting that human nature was inherently good, they believed free people would naturally form the most productive and just systems, entering into organizations strictly on their own accord.
“I demand the independence of woman,” Goldman wrote in 1897, “her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases.”
Unlike many turn-of-the-century anarchists, who believed that any problems faced by women would simply disappear when anarchism ushered in a new society, Goldman worked from the conviction that women labored under distinct disabilities, which had distinct causes.
Throughout her career, Goldman addressed the need for the economic, social and sexual emancipation of women.
According to her, the patriarchal family, sexual and reproductive repression, and the financial difficulties all contributed to women’s inferior status and prevented the full flowering of their individuality.
Marriage, in her opinion, was simply a legalized form of prostitution, in which women traded sex for economic and social standing.
Convinced that enforced childbearing further eroded women’s economic and sexual autonomy, she became a prominent figure in the struggle for free access to birth control.
Goldman’s determination to speak out on her controversial views on sexual and reproductive freedom brought her into conflict with the mainstream women’s movement.
Goldman opposed the contemporary fight for women’s suffrage and efforts to open professional careers to women, believing they would result at best in the illusion of improvements to a fundamentally corrupt system.
To her, these causes were mere distractions from deeper, more important internal struggles: “[Woman’s] development, her freedom, her independence must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body … by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc … By freeing herself from the fear of the public opinion and public condemnation.”
Deportation and the Soviet Union
Following World War I, high unemployment levels, labor unrest, and a growing distrust of immigrants and their “foreign” ideas heightened the American government’s increasing intolerance of dissent.
Released from prison on September 27, 1919, Goldman was immediately re-arrested on the order of J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the Justice Department’s General Intelligence Division. Hoover persuaded the courts to deny Goldman’s citizenship claims, thus making her eligible for deportation under the 1918 Alien Act.
On December 21, 1919, Goldman, Berkman and 247 other foreign-born radicals were deported to the Soviet Union on the S.S. Buford.
Unlike many other anarchists, who opposed a socialist or communist government as much as a capitalist one, Goldman arrived in the Soviet Union with high hopes that the recent Russian Revolution had inaugurated the new, liberated society.
Instead, she was shocked by the ruthless authoritarianism of the Bolshevik regime, its severe repression of anarchists and its disregard for individual freedom.
In a face-to-face meeting with Lenin in 1920, Goldman and her long-time partner Alexander Berkman questioned the Soviet leader on the lack of freedom of speech, the press and the persecution of anarchists in Soviet Russia.
The inadequacy of Lenin’s response, together with growing repression in Russia and the slaughter of the Kronstadt rebels in 1921, prompted the two anarchists to leave the Soviet Union after only 23 months.
With the exception of a brief ninety-day lecture tour in 1934, Goldman spent the remaining years of her life in exile from the United States, wandering through Sweden, Germany, France, England, Spain and Canada, in a futile search for a new “home.”
In order to obtain the security of British citizenship, she married an elderly Welsh coal miner in 1925, but the marriage was only a formality.
In the 1920s and 1930s, while struggling economically and frustrated by the restrictions her status as an exile imposed on her political activities, Goldman enaged in a variety of literary projects. The most notable of these endeavors was her autobiography, published in 1931 as Living My Life.
In the early 1930s, Goldman also became increasingly concerned about the rising tide of fascism and Nazism. For the next several years, she lecture frequently on the imminent dangers posted by Hitler and his fellow fascists.
When the Spanish Civil War erupted in July 1936, Goldman hurled herself into the Loyalist cause. Anarchists had succeeded in winning broad popular support in parts of Spain and, when Goldman visited collectivized towns and farms in Aragon and the Levante, she was electrified by what seemed to her to be the beginnings of a true anarchist revolution. Goldman soon became the London representative of the National Confederation of Labor and the Anarchist Federation of Iberia (CNT-FAI), directing the English-language press service and propaganda bureau for the Spanish anarchists.
Dismayed but not vanquished by Franco’s triumph in early 1939, she moved to Canada where she worked to gain asylum for Spanish refugees and helped foreign-born radicals threatened with deportation to fascist countries.
On her deathbed, in Toronto, Canada, Goldman asked to be buried near the Hay-market Riot Martyrs, who had inspired her political activism. She is buried next to these men in Forest Park’s German Waldheim Cemetery.
•Rich Viton is the president of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois
• Born on June 27 in Kovno, Lithuania, to Taube (Bienowitch) and Abraham Goldman.
• 1885 Immigrates to the United States with sister Helena, settling in Rochester, New York.
• 1887 Marries fellow factory worker Jacob Kershner; divorces him the following year. Execution of four anarchists unjustly convicted of bombing a labor rally in 1886 sparks Goldman’s political awakening.
• 1889 Moves to New York City’s Lower East Side and meets many prominent anarchists, including Alexander Berkman and Johann Most; the next year, delivers first of countless public lectures.
• 1892 Conspires with Alexander Berkman in his assassination attempt on Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie Steel plant manager who ordered violent attacks on striking workers.
• 1893 Serves ten months in prison for speaking at a demonstration of the unemployed.
• 1895 Trains as a nurse in Vienna.
• 1901 Unjustly implicated in the assassination of President McKinley and demonized by the press.
• 1903 Becomes involved in Free Speech League in New York City in response to the passage of anti-anarchist laws.
• 1906 Founds Mother Earth magazine; later publishes numerous articles and lectures, including Anarchism and Other Essays (1910) and The Social Significance of the Modern Drama (1914).
• 1916 Arrested twice, imprisoned once, for lecturing and distributing material on birth control.
• 1917 Co-founds No-Conscription League; sentenced to two years in prison for conspiracy to obstruct the draft.
• 1919 Deported to Soviet Russia with 248 other alien radicals; later publishes My Disillusionment in Russia (1923), a reaction to the Bolshevik suppression of anarchists and free speech.
• 1928 After intermittent visits across Europe and Canada, settles in Saint-Tropez, France.
• 1931 Publishes autobiography, Living My Life.
• 1932 Lectures on the imminent dangers of fascism and the rise of Nazism, first in England and later in the United States and Canada.
• 1934 After many efforts, secures visa and returns to United States for 90-day lecture tour.
• 1936-1938 Works with the anarchist trade union (CNT-FAI) to fight fascism and build new society during the Spanish Civil War.
• 1940 Dies on May 14 at age 70, in Toronto, Canada, and is buried next to the Haymarket martyrs in Forest Park, Illinois.